Monday, May 31, 2010

Replacing Wheat and Gluten in Recipes

by Kelley Lindberg

What a treat I have for you today! Shelley, a gluten-free expert and frequent participant on the UFAN email forum, has graciously agreed to be my guest blogger today. She is continuing my series of allergen-replacements for recipes by writing today’s article on gluten-free cooking. You will LOVE what she has to say… Thank you, Shelley! Be sure to check out Shelley’s blog, at


To be honest, when my oldest son was first diagnosed with a wheat allergy (along with several other severe allergies), I had never heard of gluten. At the time, I was just a few weeks away from giving birth to my second child, who I was told was likely to have the same allergies as my son and my best bet was to avoid the top allergens while nursing her. I was totally overwhelmed.

Lucky for me, my mom was scheduled to come and visit and she just happened to have a degree in food science and nutrition. She knew exactly what gluten was and started reading everything she could get her hands on. I don’t know how we did it back then, before blogs and Google and everything we take for granted. She showed up at the airport with two huge suitcases (remember when you could take those on airplanes?) full of gluten-free cookbooks and bags and bags of gluten-free flours.

For the next 2 weeks we spent every day in the kitchen, trying every recipe in The Gluten-free Gourmet and making up our own. It took a lot of patience and a good sense of humor because more of our creations ended up in the garbage than in our tummies – but I learned a lot.

Flash forward four kids later, my youngest was done nursing and I was ready to start eating “normal” again, only to find out the hard way that the gluten issues weren’t entirely my kids’ problem. I immediately began having problems and my doctors realized for the first time in my life that gluten was my problem as well.

So here we are 11 years later, and with a house full of gluten-free eaters, I have some tips to share:

Tip #1 - Xanthan gum or guar gum
Gluten-free cooking just doesn’t happen without them. They are the glue that gluten-free flours are missing. Without them, the only thing your gluten-free baked goods will be good for is bread crumbs. A good rule of thumb is 1 tsp of xanthan or guar gum per cup of gluten-free flour in your recipe. If you are using eggs, you may not need as much, and if you are replacing eggs, you may need a bit more.

Tip #2 - Know your alternatives.
One of the cool things about gluten-free cooking is all the alternatives we have to regular old flour. With a little effort and creativity, gluten-free living really opens the doors to a healthier lifestyle than you probably had before.

**A word of warning - when trying any of these flours for the first time, use it in a pancake or something simple and watch for reactions. I try to rotate the flours I use and there are a few that just don’t work for us – but work great for many of my friends. Buy the small bag the first time and if you like it, go back and buy it in bulk!**

Gluten-free flours need cool dark storage; most store best in the freezer. I store many of the whole grains in sealed buckets and put the freshly ground flour in my freezer if I am not going through it fast enough.

Quinoa (pronounced Keen wa) – This is an ancient grain, really high in protein and high in amino acids. It adds structure to gluten-free breads. I use this a lot.

Amaranth – The seeds of this plant are also unusually high in protein and amino acids, adding flavor and structure to the dough.

Sorghum – A really popular grain, kind of sweet without much of an aftertaste.

Teff – High in dietary fiber, protein, calcium and iron, this is a nutritional powerhouse. It has a slightly sweet nutty flavor that adds a lot to gluten-free baking.

Buckwheat – Not a grain; it’s a fruit and has nothing in common with wheat other than the name. This is my favorite grain. It’s hearty, has a familiar taste, and adds lot of nutrition to your breads.

Millet – A fabulous source of the B vitamins, it does have a stronger flavor but combines well with other flours in baking. I use this quite often.

Brown Rice – I use this flour often, too – especially in cupcakes and other treats that I serve to unsuspecting wheat-eaters. It has a familiar taste and the whole grains offer fiber and vitamins. Using this flour entirely on its own results in a gummy-grainy texture, so always mix with another flour or starch to prevent this. You can also use white rice flour; it acts more like a starch and has little nutritional value, but certainly can be incorporated into gluten-free bread making if you choose.

Corn – Corn flour is much finer than corn meal, but it still tends to be a bit heavy to bake with so always combine it with other flours. Makes fabulous corn breads with a little potato starch or quinoa flour!

There are all sorts of bean flours. I am only going to mention the most common:

Garbanzo bean flour – High in protein, and it’s easy to use. Be warned it has a stronger taste so it works best mixed with other flours and can go rancid if not kept cool.

Fava bean flour – I don’t usually see this alone (although you can order it). Often it’s marketed as Garfava flour, a mixture of garbonzo and fava beans. It has a lot of protein and adds great structure to bread, but like Garbanzo bean flour, it has a stronger taste and turns rancid in less than ideal conditions.

Soy flour – I almost forgot to mention it. We don’t use it at our house as soy is a major allergen for us (and many others), but it is also high in protein and has a strong flavor like the bean flours, so go easy.

Starches – Not really known for their nutritional value, starches come in handy when you need some help binding ingredients and making your bread light enough to rise. There are some great commercially available breads out there that rely almost exclusively on starches. I struggle to use a lot of these because the last thing my kids need is empty calories – we need nutritional powerhouses in every bite. But on vacation and in a crunch they sure make life easier. Starches all are fabulous thickeners as well – use like corn starch in soups, sauces, and gravy.

Potato Starch – This is totally different than potato flour. It’s light and has a really “normal” taste. It does tend to get gummy if you use too much, but a 1/2 to 1 cup in a recipe can really lighten things up.

Corn Starch – Acts a lot like potato starch. It’s a great binder and smells great when cooked. Too much makes your bread gummy in the middle, but a bit here and there can make a big difference.

Tapioca Starch – Often called tapioca flour. A little bit of this goes a long ways. I find the best prices at local Asian markets that sell it in tiny packages. While you could never make an entire loaf from tapioca starch, I find I can’t bake without a cup or so in my recipe. It really helps hold things together, gives a nice flavor and lightens up a recipe.

Sweet rice flour – Can be used in place of sugar in some recipes. Be careful, a little goes a long way – but that is a good thing.

Arrowroot flour – I love this stuff but have a hard time finding it in our current home town. It is great to bake with and makes a fabulous thickener that doesn’t change the flavor. If you are fortunate to get a good deal on it, don’t pass it up!

Bonus tip- Flax seed (ground) – Okay, I know it’s not a flour, but adding a few tablespoons to a batch of bread or muffins adds a fabulous nutty flavor and a punch of omega 3s. It’s also a great egg-replacer. (See Replacing Eggs in Recipes.)

Tip #3 - Gluten-free dough is actually more like a batter.
This was hard to get used to after years of making wheat products - but as a rule, gluten-free breads generally turn out better if the dough is more like a cake batter. It just needs more moisture.

Tip #4 - Start small.
This was probably the best thing I learned from my mom. When we would make a batch of muffins or cookies the first time we would only cook a few of them. That way, if it just didn’t turn out, we could add more water, flour, xanthan gum, or whatever and have a chance of saving the batch. The other thing she taught me is to not be afraid to throw it out and start over if it really isn’t working. Really, on a tight budget, you will spend more time and money making a bigger mess out of your dough than you will by just getting rid of it and starting with a different recipe.

Tip#5 - Most of your old recipes will adapt well.
I spent years trying all these elaborate recipes I found in special cookbooks and on the internet. But the ones we like the best are the old stand-bys from our pre-gluten-free days. Once you find a mix of flours that work for you, add some xanthan or guar gum and a little extra moisture, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to cook gluten-free.

Tip #5 - You Are Not Alone.
That is the coolest thing about living in our generation. With the internet, we are all practically next-door neighbors. Maybe we can’t run and borrow a cup of buckwheat flour, but we can certainly share recipes and tips and struggles. Since our diagnosis 11 years ago we have lived in 3 states and 6 different towns and I have never been the only one. In fact, I am usually the first call for many as they find their children developing allergies. Today I can walk into most eating establishments and ask for a gluten-free menu, and the aisles of most markets have at least a handful of items marked gluten-free.

Some of my favorite sites include: (recipe section and check out the comments on many recipes, people post their adaptations for many allergies)
Google-groups and support groups are like life-lines when you are getting started, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. You’ll be surprised how many others have stood in your shoes – and you can always call on me – I’m happy and thrilled to help. I still remember how hard it was, worrying every day what I would feed my growing children, and working to educate teachers and family members and friends on a continual basis. But I am here to say that it works out, it is worth it, and my first-born, failure-to-thrive baby is now almost my height, a state-ranked competitive swimmer, and anything but malnourished.



Jamie at said...

Thank you for taking the time to educate regarding the gluten free lifestyle and trying to simplify the process a little. I hear from customers all the time regarding "what do I make" and this is a great post. I will make sure to refer more people to read this and share. Thanks again!

Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...

Thanks Jamie! You do so much to help the gluten-free and food-allergic community through your grocery website, I'm so glad we're all in this together!